Topic:Word Origins

For my latest appearance on Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast, I quizzed the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield about a five-letter word that seemed to spring out of nowhere in online usage about a decade ago but in fact has roots that are centuries old: snark. Continue reading...
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Is there any point in remaining "spoiler-free," steering clear of any crucial plot points of movies or television shows you haven't seen yet? That's the question raised by Netflix in its new "Living with Spoilers" campaign, and it set me off on a search for the roots of the "spoiler" in my latest column for the Wall Street Journal. Continue reading...
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As Americans celebrate Columbus Day, it's worth reflecting on the complicated cultural and linguistic legacy that Christopher Columbus left behind. There's a single word that aptly illustrates this legacy and all of its contradictions: Indians, the mistaken name that Columbus gave to the native peoples of the Americas. Continue reading...
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In the latest installment of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I take on a word that every child knows, orange, and reveal its hidden history. It's a remarkably well-traveled word, and its travels tell us a great deal about the cultural history of many of the world's great civilizations. Continue reading...
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A few weeks ago I started a regular feature on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley called LinguaFile, in which I present the hosts with a word and have them try to guess its origins. Last time it was discombobulate, and for this week's episode I went with another one of my favorite words, lagniappe, meaning "a bonus gift (as given to a customer from a merchant)." Continue reading...
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Last week, as part of the Lexicon Valley podcast, I talked about how the word discombobulate grew out of a vogue in the Jacksonian era for making up jocular polysyllabic words with a pseudo-classical air. That impulse for concocting silly-sounding sesquipedalianisms has often bubbled up in the history of English. Continue reading...
TOPICS: Fun, Word Origins, Words
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A peculiar feature of some adjectives ending in -y is their ability to take on a semantic life of their own, separate from the meaning of their root. A handful of food-based adjectives fit this pattern, in which an English learner would be at a great disadvantage in thinking that the adjective's meaning might be composable from its parts. Think of corny, meaty, fishy, and cheesy. Continue reading...
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